Vale Cemetery and the Rural Cemetary Movement of the 19th century

Postcard of Vale Cemetery

Postcards were created of various vistas at Vale Cemetery.

Girl at Vale

Taken at Vale Cemetery, this image shows how, although a cemetery, Vale was a picturesque location and a destination for Schenectadians looking to escape the city for an afternoon.

Starting in the 17th century, most burials were next to a church or chapel in order to be closer to the saints and improve the chance of salvation at the resurrection. Graves were packed in close together and in no particular order. As room became scarce, bodies were often interred one on top of another. Nor were the church yards well kept. Tombstones were often broken and it was not uncommon to find scattered bone fragments or sunken graves from collapsed coffins. In the late 18th and early 19th century, the current conditions generated concerns about additional space, sanitation, and aesthetics. Taking the dead outside of the growing city, the rural cemetery came to America in 1831. Utilizing the landscape’s natural geography, plots were spread out among hills and trees. Visitors could escape the noise and filth of the city while they walked the paths through nature and contemplate history as they gazed upon monuments to the deceased.   

While Albany and Troy established their own rural cemeteries at the height of its popularity, Schenectady created theirs as the movement was dieing out. As early as 1838 a petition was presented to the city government bringing attention to the need for a new burial ground, but it was not until 1854 that the city responded to another petition demanding action. However support for the new cemetery was not universal. Some still wanted to be buried with their ancestors, while others saw the necessity of a new burial ground but did not want taxpayer money to pay for the endeavor. Resistance was enough that the Mayor and City Council was voted out of office in 1855 for anti-cemetery candidates who then sold the land the city had already purchased.


“Our beautiful and romantic Vale Cemetery.”

Finally in 1857 the city built Vale Cemetery which was taken over by the Vale Cemetery Association in 1858. In a major departure from the old church yards, visitation was restricted to daytime, at one point being prohibited on Sundays. No eating was allowed and loud children and pets were to be kept under control. Monuments were controlled as well. The association encouraged simplicity in design, yet beauty and originality.

Today Vale resembles more of what it was meant to replace than a rural cemetery. Larger than when it was originally established, Vale now contains over 42,000 burials. Thickly cluttered with various monuments and stones of different times and cemetery movements, many of which are decaying or have been vandalized, it has lost most of its natural beauty and the effect of its original design.

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